Review Symposium: “Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire” (3)

Samuel Fassbinder 

Bringing Resistance to Education

The field of “education” can be said to be about “teaching”; but this is to offer a mere functional definition without exploring what education is about. The sociologists of education tell us that education, in the sense of the modern educational university, is about “consumer choice.” To say it thusly, however, is to pose the student as a consumer. Clark Kerr constructs college students as consumers in his classic The Uses of the University (31-32); it becomes important, then, to ask about the educational processes by which students become consumers. Such an investigation would not limit itself to discussions of schooling; Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy is importantly about how advertising pressures create “commercialized children”; little consumers. The most important thing about schooling and learning, today, is their integration into capitalism; capitalist schooling.

David F. Labaree’s study of teacher education, The Trouble with Ed Schools, situates education departments at the bottom of the university hierarchy, and suggests that “education” is the least respected academic field because it is the most subject to market forces. “Much of the scorn that has been directed at teacher education over the years can be traced to the simple fact that it has earnestly sought to provide all of the teachers that were asked of it.” (25) Teacher education gets down and dirty with the working classes in the schools, and is deprived of academic status for it.

Now, teacher education traditionally limits itself to the production of teachers; the field of teacher education, then, is the standard, “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic'” public school curriculum. Its main subject of inquiry is how to present it in the standard public school classroom. This has been narrowed to the point at which, under the No Child Left Behind Act, many of the nation’s public schools have become mere test-prep institutions. We get a variant of commodity fetishism: test scores for test scores’ sake.

But there is nevertheless a creative side to the education department in the university. The academic end of the education department presents an alternative, sometimes idealized, to the constricted classroom reality often seen in schools. This is what Labaree calls “progressive education.” Progressive education is education as it should be, education as an appeal to the learning experiences of the children themselves. But, as Labaree describes it in The Trouble with Ed Schools, progressive education is tied to departments of education in the form of a marriage of losers:

“Both were losers in their respective arenas: child-centered progressivism lost out in the struggle for control of American schools, and the education school lost out in the struggle for respect in American higher education. They needed each other; with one looking for a safe haven and the other looking for a righteous mission”. (Labaree 143)

Labaree’s social lens allows us to focus clearly upon the “righteous mission” of McLaren and Jaramillo, two education department professors who bring the mission of education into the terrain of humanist marxism, in hopes of citing a war of position, defined as “the exercise of resistance in the sphere of civil society by popular classes who are able to avoid co-optation and mediation by the nation state” (McLaren and Jaramillo 113). Their immediate goal is to provoke a discussion about the ultimate purposes of educational institutions; their eventual goal is bringing world society into a new mode of social being.

The bulk of content in the introduction and four essays that make up Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire constitute a rallying call to that war of position. The introduction situates the disaster post-hurricane Katrina in New Orleans amidst “the current ecological crisis and crisis of capitalism brought on by fossil-fuel shortage” (18) and of the racism of the official response to said disaster. Chapter 1 contains a wide-ranging analysis of the capitalist system amidst the Bush administration’s “ideological lockdown in an attempt to return to the halcyon days of the McKinley era when the fat cats of industry ran a retrograde financial kingdom that enshrined private property rights and supported the annexation of foreign territories (Greider 2003)”. (McLaren and Jaramillo 2007).

The final portion of Chapter 1 does, indeed, contain a subdivision titled “The Politics of Organization,” (38-49) in which the path to socialism is sketched out in helpful detail.  The substance of this portion is deserving of extended mention. The authors deal with criticisms of socialist organization as too centralized, too undemocratic, too disconnected from working class struggle. Their argument proceeds quickly to examples of group struggle in Latin America: the “asambleas” of Argentina, the Zapatistas of Mexico, the “Bolivarian circles” of Venezuela. They advocate the attainment of state power for the sake of its transformation; the bourgeois state won’t save us, but a transformed state might help. The rest of Chapter 1 helpfully speculates upon the ideological ground which must be gained if a “civil societarian left” is to be resuscitated in the United States. McLaren and Jaramillo advocate the reworking of the notion of “citizenship” according to a model proposed by Takis Fotopoulos under the aegis of “deep democracy.” Bourgeois democracy is, of course, the right to elect the capitalist of your choice; real economic democracy involves popular control over economic decisions.

McLaren’s media analysis, though, fills a large portion of both intro and chapter 1. It leaves us in no doubt that the Right knows about the idea of the “war of position,” and is in fact fighting such a war right now. (After all, dear readers, Rush Limbaugh cited Gramsci in See, I Told You So; what are the rest of us waiting for?)

The educational content of the first part of Pedagogy and Praxis is plain and apparent, too: this is the real education we are getting from the American mass media, and it should scare us into action:

“Employing a politics that counts on the stupefaction of a media-primed electorate, the Bush administration has marshaled the corporate media in the service of its foreign policy such that the environment is literally suffused with its neoliberal agenda, with very little space devoid of its ideological cheerleading”.(33)

If you’re a teacher, don’t imagine you can just shut your door and teach, either – they want your classroom space, too:

“Where classrooms once served as at least potentially one of the few spaces of respite from the ravages of the dominant ideology, they have now been colonized by the corporate logic of privatization and the imperial ideology of the militarized state… Consider the case of Bill Nevins, a high school teacher in New Mexico who faced an impromptu paid leave of absence following a student’s reading of “Revolution X,” a poem that lends a critical eye toward the war in Iraq”.(33)

So the authors care about the mess that public schooling has become, too: Chapter 2 brings the reader into a social analysis of the No Child Left Behind Act, depicted here as another tool of the corporations and the Right to disempower the poor and, in general, the working class. Solutions are named: “we realize that capitalism is not something that can be fixed, or humanized, because its ‘value form’ is premised on the exploitation of human labor.”(82) An alternative pedagogy is embraced, too: “needed is a language of analysis that will enable teachers, students, and families to unpack the real objectives of the Bush regime’s educational initiatives in light of its adherence to policies and neoliberal imperialist practices as the foundation of its dominant optic.”(85)

Chapter 3, “Critical Pedagogy, Latino/a Education, and the Politics of Class Struggle,” brings us on tour with authors McLaren and Jaramillo, in Cuba with Che’s daughter, in Venezuela with President Chavez and with the beneficiaries of his educational initiatives, and with various resistance movements throughout Latin America and the world and, indeed, with populations in the US. It’s an exciting tour: pictures from it are scattered throughout the book between the chapters. The authors spread a message of unity through diversity, and oblige the reader to recognize the various real resistances to right-wing hegemony that such an educational strategy can provoke.

The Two Removes: Educational Literature and Student Experience

At the beginning of this review, when I looked through Labaree’s sociological lens upon education departments, I could see that they stood at two removes from student learning (as they themselves define it, according to the reigning criteria of progressive education).  These removes are, to be sure, institutional removes: the professors, the teachers, and the students all see schooling with different institutional eyes. The first remove is of education departments from actual schoolteachers, who work in the classroom every day for half the calendar year; the second remove is that of the schoolteachers themselves from the student lifeworld itself, seen phenomenologically as “student experience,” or in terms of the placement of such students in environments in which cultural politics and political economies are expressed. We would do well to evaluate texts written in the “field of education” for their attempts to apprehend the institutional removes which separate academic thought from student experience.

The distance of this first remove, wide and growing wider in light of the Bush administration’s educational policies, has been dramatized in polemics such as Meyer and Wood’s edited (2004) volume Many Children Left Behind. The Bush regime has brought America’s schools to heel in imposing testing mandates upon all: schools must make “Adequate Yearly Progress” in test scores, or face sanctions. The six well-established progressive authors who write in Meyer and Wood’s volume all have solid academic reasons for criticizing the banality of NCLB: its failure to use varied means of measurement in determining school quality, its over-reliance upon standardized tests, its denial of local authority over schooling. Pedagogy and Praxis is ahead of the game as it is played by the progressives: having already shown in Chapter One how progressive educators have criticized standardized testing for “reducing knowledge for its numerically determinable value,” (34) and for all of the other symptoms shown by an educational system wedded to the status quo, McLaren and Jaramillo dig at NCLB in Chapter 2 as an attempt to privatize education and as a sop to four major testing corporations (Harcourt, McGraw Hill, Riverside, and Pearson) (79). The authors’ perspective, established from the outset, is that “it is the continuation of capitalism that is the underlying issue” (85) rather than any of the symptoms cited by progressive authors.

Now, NCLB was indeed a product of bipartisan Congressional consensus; its passage was a logical extension of the Goals 2000 program under Clinton and the America 2000 program under Bush padre. It establishes the “official knowledge” that according to Stephen Arons (Short Route to Chaos) “contradicts the entire idea of constitutional democracy.” (Arons 86) However, McLaren and Jaramillo don’t make a complete case for the notion that NCLB (and beyond it, the Bush administration), is a normal course of elite action within the capitalist system as a whole. Was the invasion of the public schools (and, for that matter, of Afghanistan and Iraq) really all that much a consequence of elite consensus around “empire” (85) as the authors claim? (Or, more nagging to liberal sensibilities, would a President Gore have acted differently?) Perhaps a future book would design pedagogy to expose the financial secrets behind the relentless hunger for profit gnawing at world society’s neoliberal economic elites. Starting with interpretations of movies such as “Wall Street,” and drawing upon books such as Harry Shutt’s The Trouble with Capitalism, Levy and Dumenil’s Capital Resurgent, Kees van der Pijl’s Global Rivalries from the Cold War to Iraq, and Robert Brenner’s The Economics of Global Turbulence. It would expose a world in which vast surpluses of capital must lean on government and drink the working class dry while the actual global economic growth rate declines. To their credit, the authors show great proficiency in the “follow the money” type of analysis which would constitute such pedagogy.

The second remove, between teachers and student learning, is covered in this book by the concept of “critical pedagogy.” Pedagogy and Praxis builds upon a background already explicated in detail by Paulo Freire, whose concept of “conscientization” (34) motivates the political discussion therein. Readers who need to understand why revolutionary critical pedagogy centers upon the students, rather than the curriculum, should consult the writings of Paulo Freire as an assumed prologue to the sort of pedagogic writing offered inPedagogy and Praxis.

Pedagogy and Praxis, then, is intended to cut through the removes separating the education faculties in their ivory towers from the students in their scholastic settings, by appealing to them to join the struggle for a better future:

“Critical pedagogy, as we envision it, avoids the bad infinity of mainstream pedagogy in which truth and justice are sought outside of living history in the precincts of a mystical otherness. In contrast, we underscore our conviction that the subjunctive world of the “ought to be” must be wrought within the imperfect, partial, defective, and finite world of the “what is” by the dialectical act of absolute negation. It is the search and struggle for a utopia in which the future is inherent in the material forces of the present”. (116)

Now, can the real-life teachers of America follow such advice? Or are they constrained to seek the mere goals of “Adequate Yearly Progress” under the watchful eyes of principals alert for dissidence? The answer to such questions lies in the political realities of each moment: a movement to overturn NCLB and to get off of the capitalist path (perhaps based on some of the living examples offered in Chapter 1) would allow the answer to the first question to shift from “no” to “yes.”

At any rate, it is through apprehensions of the difficulties of the present moment, and outlines of the road ahead, the authors arrive at the sort of utopian teaching suggested under the banner of “revolutionary critical pedagogy.” So, through the collective building of an “ought to be,” the institutional removes are themselves to be removed, and the various social forces are brought to bear upon the search and the struggle for a utopia in opposition to the false promises of capitalism.

Coda and Conclusion

Chapter 4, “God’s Cowboy Warrior,” asks us to recognize the ideological stakes of the hegemonic Bush administration in the US. “The only way Bush can pull off his image as the great American protector of the white male is if military spending becomes his major priority.” (170) Chapter 4 reads as a long coda, further developing insights mentioned in previous chapters of the book. In reading the book’s last eighty-three pages, we are led back to the serious study of power, clearly the work to be done for those living within its machineries. The Bush administration is said to combine the religious fervor of Christian fundamentalism and the financial power of neoliberalism with various white male dominator fantasies, with a few old, repackaged Nazi strategies (e.g. torture, “shock and awe”) thrown in for good measure.

At about p. 172, forty-nine pages in, the discussion reaches up a metalevel to a critique of capitalism, in which “capital performs itself through our laboring and toiling bodies.” (172) Such an insight brings much of the prior discussion of power into sharp focus, and it deserves emphasis here in this book review. It also brings Chapter 4 to the threshold of a discussion of “capitalist discipline,” so meaningfully foregrounded in Kees van der Pijl’s Transnational Classes and International Relations, in which the capitalist system is seen as an expanding disciplinary framework. This insight, moreover, further detaches the authors’ arguments from the general line of anti-Bush diatribe, which may stand for worthy ideals without connecting Bush himself with the daily operation of the capitalist system.

The end of chapter 4 engages us with the philosophy of Peter Hudis (199-200) requiring a leap into abstraction that not all readers may be able to join the authors in making. Readers will nevertheless gain a summary understanding of revolutionary critical pedagogy as a departure from existing realities.

In conclusion, Pedagogy and Praxis can be read as a major attempt to add to the struggle of a “war of position” on all levels, and is a worthy contribution to such a struggle.  Pedagogy and Praxis can also be viewed as an attempt to incite discussion, radical discussion, in the context of educational departments in universities. Such departments can be said to be handicapped by the fragmentation of university business, and separated from student learning processes by the two removes I mentioned above. To be sure,Pedagogy and Praxis does show that there are audiences in politically “ready” areas of the world (Venezuela, Mexico) which are open to revolutionary critical pedagogy. Such an audience, we might imagine, would also benefit from a different, more advanced pedagogic discussion, one more closely observing teachers and their activities. However, it seems as if they have benefited from a social climate which allows radical educators to thrive; whereas if one lives in the United States, a terrain of relatively little resistance to capitalism, ideological challenges to the “revolutionary critical pedagogy” position may prove to be insuperable for many who wish to teach in the public schools. It is that non-activist part of the world, then, which especially needs to read and re-read the essays in which the case for revolutionary critical pedagogy is inserted into a setting of present-day current events. Said events are, indeed, the cannon-fodder of the “war of position.”


Arons, Stephen. Short Route to Chaos. Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1997.

Kerr, Clark. The Uses of the University. 5th ed. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 2001.

Labaree, David F. The Trouble with Ed Schools. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2004.

McLaren, Peter, and Nathalia Jaramillo. Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire: Towards a New Humanism. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2007.

Meyer, Deborah, and George Wood, eds. Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is Damaging our Children and Our Schools. Boston: Beacon P, 2004.

Van der Pijl, Kees. Transnational Classes and International Relations. London: Routledge, 1998.

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